Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Weird Wednesday: The Scary Half

In the 1940s, when World War II called on everyone to ration and sacrifice, everyone including Hollywood felt the pinch.  Walt Disney, who had not seen financial success with a film since Snow White in 1937, was not exempt and found himself scaling back his filmmaking to accomidate rising costs and lack of resources (and also because the Army had commissioned the making of many propaganda films and Disney was already stretched thin with many of its animators fighting in the war).  The first film he released during this time of cutting costs was Saludos Amigos, a package film featuring a central theme and several short subjects that addressed it.  It was centered on Latin America and the life and culture there.  This was followed by several package films in quick succession (because they were easier and cheaper to make), those included: The Three Caballeros (another Latin American themed film), Make Mine Music (a musical anthology focusing on familiar songs, similar to Fantasia), Fun and Fancy Free (which featured adaptations of "Bongo" and "Jack and the Beanstalk"), and Melody Time (another musical anthology).  Then in 1949, Disney released its sixth, final, and probably best remembered package film due to the constant showing of "the scary half" every Halloween on The Disney Channel from the early 1980s onward.  It is this portion of the package film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, that I wish to examine as today's family friendly Halloween tale.  The segment is based on one of Washington Irving's most famous stories and features one of the most frightening Disney Villains to ever see film.  So let's take a drive to Tarrytown, New York and take in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The segement begins as the first segment, The Wind in the Willows, ends and narrator Basil Rathborne relinquishes his duties to the next narrator, Bing Crosby.  Crosby congratulates Rathborne for choosing a fantastic character from English literature to examine, but then rebuttals by saying that America has it's share of great characters too.  From this simple statement, he segways to his personal favorite...Ichabod Crane, who features heavily in the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The book for the story opens and we are transported to the lovely world of New England, circa 1820.  The threes are black barked with orange, red, and brown leaves signifying that Autumn is at its peak, animals are lethargic, and the river slowly leads us upward toward the small village of Sleepy Hollow where we are introduced to Ichabod Crane, the new schoolmaster of the village.  He is tall, thin, and funny looking with his huge feet and large nose (indeed, he is described as a scarecrow).  However, there seems to be something facinating and different about him which makes the townfolk take notice and immediately begin wondering who this new man is.  Ichabod takes to his newfound popularity with ease and becomes a prominant figure in the town, working with many womens groups.  Several of the women want to wed Mr. Crane, but he only has eyes for one girl...Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the wealthy landowner Baltus Van Tassel.  It is unknown whether Katrina returns Ichabod's affections, but she certainly enjoys egging him on whenever Brom Bones, the town hunk, is around.  Brom seems to be the only one who dislikes the schoolmaster, since they both share the same ideal woman, and after Katrina has worked them both to a frenzy of desire (and Ichabod has managed to keep coming out on top despite Brom's efforts to the contrary) Brom takes matters into his own hands.  It turns out that Ichabod is very superstitious of spooks and spirits, so on Halloween night at the Van Tassel's annual party Brom tells the local legend of The Headless Horseman...a spirit who rides every night from the woods to the old bridge at the edge of town looking for his lost head.  The story goes, that unless riders cross the bridge before the Horseman reaches them, he will take their head for his own.  Ichabod then has to make the long ride home in the dark alone.  Will he find that there is really a ghost or will it turn out to be just a story?

This is an awesome animated short.  It is simple, effective, suspenseful and sincerely frightening once the third act kicks in and Ichabod finds himself facing down a murderous spirit.  Bing Crosby is equally effective as a narrator and as the sole voice of the speaking characters in the piece, most of which speak only when necessary...allowing the film to become close to 'pure cinema' (all visuals, no words).  I feel that even without Crosby's narration and the few lines of dialouge and song, you'd still understand what was happening in the film which speaks to its strength.  The animation is top notch as well, with the Fall colors popping in the daylight scenes while the shadows devour the world in the film's nighttime climax.  The songs too are catchy and memorable, with standouts being "Ichabod Crane" and "The Headless Horseman Song".  To this day, when I watch the film, I have the latter song stuck in my brain for days to come and I always chuckle at its final message "You can't reason with a headless man"...kills me.  For any of you with small children, I will say that this film scared me green when I was a kid and I always found it difficult to watch the end without covering my eyes...however there is nothing on display but some healthy suspense and a few good jump scares so you need not worry about tucking the kids in early.  In fact, I'm certain that my healthy love of all things macabre comes from early exposure to this (don't take that as fact sis had the same exposure and she hates scary things, but still loves this).  So if you have young ones who are ready for a little dose of fright, toss this one in the DVD player (or turn it on on cable) and watch them start to squirm when Ichabod enters those dark woods alone.  They'll thank you for it later.


Amanda said...

This is one of my all time favourite Disney films, right up there with Donald Ducks' "Trick or Treat" ( Loved hearing about the history behind these short films. Thanks!

MovieGuy said...

Thanks Amanda...I'm actually hoping to write about "A Disney Halloween" later this weekend with a focus on that particular short, thanks for sharing a Youtube link :)